By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz.

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First published in The Borneo Post on 22nd August 2014

I USED to have an antipathetic attitude to running: what’s the point of just running, I argued with friends possessed by the craze, when you can run with a racquet and hit something? Placing a ball or shuttlecock, performing a correct swing and anticipating the location and intentions of an opponent all introduce elements of tactics and strategy, compared to mindless cardiovascular plodding.

But now, having trained for and completed my first 10km-event during the Seremban Half Marathon last Sunday, I have become ambivalent about the sport: mainly because of improvements to my squash and the opportunities it provides to visit our parks.

The convenience of the Lake Gardens is matched by its beauty: bridges over lilied ponds containing the occasional inexplicable old skiff (which upon closer inspection contain juxtaposing rubbish) provide succour against the backdrop of the towers of KL Sentral, and by jumping a gate you can do a hillier long route that takes you past Carcosa Seri Negara – and suddenly you are reminded that all of this geography was originally a colonial project.

The garden’s official name now makes no reference to that history: the word “Perdana” was added to its title in 1975 and then the word “Lake” was replaced in 2011, so it’s now officially the Perdana Botanical Gardens.

Certainly only very few young Malaysians will know that Jalan Perdana was once Venning Road, named for Alfred Venning, the architect of the Lake Gardens and founder member of the “Europeans only” Lake Club who served as Selangor State Treasurer and Chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board.

(It took the intervention of World War II, Sultan Hisamuddin Alam Shah of Selangor and newly-elected Umno president Tunku Abdul Rahman for the club to admit Malayans.)

Another decent afternoon was provided by Taman Tasik Permaisuri in Cheras, where there’s masses of parking since it’s next to the stadium of the Kuala Lumpur Football Association.

A springy jogging track hugs the lake, though a hilly detour is available through the trees.

It would have been nearly as pleasant as the Lake Gardens if only the “no bicycles” signs weren’t insulted by the sputtering of motorcycles driven by helmet-less boys weaving through the morass of competing groups of joggers.

To continue the sociological experiment, one morning of training was in Desa Park City, where there seems to be no hint of xenophobia as outsiders seamlessly share the well-kept parks with local residents out with their families, though not all dogs were on leashes as they should have been – and subsequent refreshment is plentiful.

Then there was the race itself.

I don’t often get to see Seremban on a Sunday sunrise – it is remarkably serene, even with nearly 10,000 people assembled for the morning out.

I fired the gun to start one category of the run, and then the Tunku Besar Seri Menanti started mine.

Initially surrounded by professional-looking Negeri Sembilan runners who had monopolised the front of the queue, the adage “slow and steady wins the race” obviously had many definitions: after the swarm of the serious, I was overtaken by the super-fit veterans and gangly yet astonishingly quick schoolchildren – boys and girls.

The route (a new one apparently) was hillier than expected, but the undulations afforded good views of the crowd, and it was clear that this gathering of thousands was truly an accurate demographic sample of Malaysia: diverse ethnicities, religious beliefs, social classes and age groups all voluntarily gathering to participate in something that at the end of the day relies on individual merit.

The organisers of political marches like to claim that they are able to get thousands of Malaysians together to protest a cause: but even without the machinery of political parties, and in the absence of collective anger, that so many people congregate to give themselves a challenge speaks volumes about the popularity of the sport.

In the prize-giving ceremony, the event’s chairman Datuk Zainal Abidin Ahmad paid homage to the memory of Tuanku Ja’afar: the run began its life 27 years ago in conjunction with Almarhum’s birthday.

His Royal Highness’ widow Tunku Ampuan Najihah asked me how I did: and I had to reveal a slight diversion which, thankfully, did not distort my average time of just over seven minutes per kilometre.

That wasn’t the only run that day: over 5,000 appeared for the Kuching Marathon, and 14,000 people were registered for the unabashedly “happy” Color [sic] Run in KL (the misspelling arises because it’s a trademark of US origin).

There was barely any news coverage for all three of these events: all superseded by a political marathon in Selangor.

There too, slow and steady may win the race.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz
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First published in The Borneo Post on August 15th 2014, Friday.

Admist the asinine squalor of domestic politics centred on egos, greed, broken promises, claims of disloyalty and presumptuous attempts to reconcile interpretations of “what the voters actually want” with the manner in which the state constitution actually endows legitimacy, shafts of optimistic light have, thankfully, managed to shine through this post-Raya period.

August always features a high density of student events as organisers take advantage of overlapping holidays for students from local and foreign universities, but this year I haven’t been able to say yes to as many speaking invitations as I would like.

So far I’ve done a book sharing session for ‘Roaming Beyond the Fence’ at the remarkable Popular Book Fest (where I was nominated for the Readers’ Choice Award but gladly lost to Tim Donoghue’s ‘The Tiger of Jelutong’), and then co-judged a group of pre-university students at the LSE Malaysia Club’s inaugural Economic Leadership Forum.

But so far the most engaging session has been at UKM, where Professor Datuk Saran Kaur Gill, executive director of the Asean Youth Volunteer-Leaders Secretariat and a deputy vice-chancellor, invited me to speak about the role of Asean civil society — a topic which I had spoken about some months to a group of mostly Malaysian civil servants (see ‘Strengthen civil society in Asean’, Conservatively Speaking Freely, April 14, 2014 in The Borneo Post). This time, at this second Asean Youth Volunteer Programme, the audience was 50 youth volunteers, selected competitively from 1,400 applicants from across all 10 member countries.

This fact alone suggested that these youths were genuinely committed to Asean, unlike many politicians sent on conferences across the region to pay lip service to an entity that they have no motivation in actually promoting. I told the 18- to 30-year-olds that no community can be forced into being: leaders cannot simply tell 600 million people of diverse national, cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds that they are now part of a community and expect them to embrace it (particularly when some of these leaders promote or tolerate division in their own countries if it suits their political survival).

Rather, the successful realisation of an Asean community depends on a cohesive Asean civil society that concerns itself with issues across the region. Unfortunately, the differing levels of democratic health across the 10 countries means that for now, civil society flourishes in certain places and is stifled in others: indeed, official Asean events with civil society have seen the farcical inclusion of only ‘government-sponsored NGOs’ — a despicable contradiction in terms.

Last year the programme’s theme was protecting Asean’s environment, and this year it is on Asean’s heritage: worthy causes, for sure — and since they’re going to Melaka I pointed out that democratic principles such as rule of law and separation of powers as well as free movement of capital, goods and labour as espoused by the Asean Economic Community are nothing new, and a far cry from being alien concepts that are incompatible with our cultural traditions.

However, if we want to forge something that can truly be called ‘Asean civil society’, rather than just an amalgam of unequal civil society landscapes across the region, then democratic institutions need to be strengthened everywhere, and I hope the organisers fully dedicate a future edition to this theme.

Encouragingly, the representatives from Vietnam and Myanmar agreed with me, and then the Indonesians and Filipinos in the group, shyly at first but quickly more confidently, alluded to the complementary features of strong democracy that I had mentioned in my speech — decentralisation (via the example of the rise of President-Elect Jokowi), limiting executive authority, the importance of a truly private (instead of a crony-capitalist) sector — and how they too wanted to ensure these things were protected. The CLMV participants seemed comforted to share in similar challenges.

Towards the end one lady wondered whether national sovereignty should be obsolete in a future Asean: I asked her to consider why you would want to transfer sovereignty when the risks are so high. For the foreseeable future, our nation states are more likely better protectors of individual rights and freedoms than a hypothetical superstate, and the idea of centralising decision-making power should only be revisited once there is more democratic parity in the region.

Egotistical and greedy politicians like to cause chaos when the prize is substantial power and resources: imagine the power and resources a hypothetical Asean President or Prime Minister (that constitutional question would be a headache in itself) would have. And imagine the chaos, when the tussle over the leadership of a single state in one of Asean’s comparatively better democracies is chaotic enough.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on August 8th 2014, Friday.

Every so often diplomats and scholars ask the question: is the Commonwealth of Nations relevant? Critics denounce its lack of teeth to enforce decisions and its imperial origins, while supporters praise the organisation’s commitment to democracy and its voluntary nature. But its greatest advertisement happens every four years: the Commonwealth Games gives smaller countries a chance to shine in an international spotlight, and provides cities that are not yet ready to host the Olympics (and not rich enough to buy other prestigious events) an opportunity to have some of the world’s best athletes in town.

This year in Glasgow, Malaysia was prominent from the start. There was a moment of silence in memory of MH17 before the Queen’s Baton arrived. The President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Prince Imran – the first Malaysian to hold that position – did a “great comedy act” (his own words) when the vessel containing the Head of the Commonwealth’s speech briefly refused to open, prompting Scottish cyclist Sir Chris Hoy’s equally amusing intervention. Tunku Imran, who holds the Negeri Sembilan title of Tunku Muda Serting, has contributed enormously to Malaysian sporting life over the years – particularly in squash where he served as the first secretary of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (to which I was recently elected as a committee member). His father Tuanku Ja’afar hosted Queen Elizabeth II in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 – the footage of the closing ceremony is on YouTube, complete with the embarrassing quick-march version of ‘Negaraku’ then in use performed after the majestic ‘God Save the Queen’.

During the Parade of Nations, the Malaysian contingent was led by athletes wearing Malaysia Airlines uniforms while the rest of the team wore black armbands, and cyclist Fatehah Mustapa carried the Jalur Gemilang at half-mast. This was apparently not permitted by the organisers, but no one was going to criticise this gesture of respect: indeed, we had the support of the Commonwealth family that day. Alas, that warmth was dented by reports of certain Malaysian politicians condemning the use of Scottie dogs to display the names of the countries. Politicians in the other eight OIC countries also in the Commonwealth were apparently not so incensed.

Then, of course, were the sports themselves. There were triumphs and disappointments that the sports pages documented, in contrast to the shenanigans that dominated the front pages – the former Deputy Prime Minister in the spotlight during the 1998 Games was a main news item during the 2014 Games too. Thankfully, the power of sport to unite Malaysians is ever stronger, perhaps because public confidence in other national institutions has ebbed.

Unfortunately, we were one shy of our target of seven gold medals, being beaten by Singapore (with eight) for the first time, although most of these came courtesy of their controversial Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. Together with seven silver and six bronze medals, we garnered a total of 19 medals. This is a marked drop from performances since 1998. Then, we achieved an unprecedented 35 medals, followed by 34 in Manchester, 29 in Melbourne and 36 in Delhi. (These figures are from the Commonwealth Games Federation website: there is inconsistency across other sources.)

We can try and console ourselves that on a medal per capita basis, we are not terrible – roughly 1.5 million people per medal compared to India’s 20 million people per medal – but well behind Australia’s 170,000 people per medal. Such statistical fossicking does not change the fact that we have much to do to improve our performance, though. Many theories have been put forward to explain why we’re not doing better: a lack of grassroots development, insufficient funding, politicisation and corruption of sports associations, and underdevelopment of coaches. The truth is likely to be a combination of all those things in varying degrees, with particular amendments for certain sports: in some cases, like hockey, we were once a force to be reckoned with, but our team was trounced in Glasgow – enthusiasts tell me we have never recovered since the switch to artificial turf in the seventies. In other cases, like badminton and squash, there is concern that there may be no successors to our current stars. Then there were those wins by Mohd Hafifi Mansor in weightlifting and Ooi Tze Liang in diving, and hopefully such success can be built upon.

For squash, at least, the grassroots programme is delivering results and uncovering tremendous raw talent. The weakest link now is the lack of elite coaches, and it’s one of SRAM’s current key objectives to address this by enhancing the resources available. The goal is to ensure a good number of Malaysians in the global top 20: for while it’s impossible to guarantee another legend like Nicol David, with a strong overall squad, we can increase the probability.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on August 1, 2014, Friday

I’M training for the upcoming Seremban Half Marathon so I went for a run before the final buka puasa of the month: a 3.33km heritage route around Seri Menanti that can be multiplied if necessary.

By Maghrib the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal had yet to inform the Rulers of the sighting of the new moon, so there was just the usual solitary blast of the cannon.

Dates, by now more shrivelled than a month ago, marked the final breaking of fast for Ramadan 1435, followed by proper chicken chop from Ah Meng (who happens to be Hainanese, but unlike certain Penangites I prefer individual tastes and the market, rather than government diktat, to determine who should cook food).

By isyak the Keeper of Rulers’ Seal had given his television announcement — always of Hari Raya Puasa, never of Aidilfitri, and always “in all states of Malaysia” rather than simply “in Malaysia”, since administration of Islam is still a state prerogative, though it has been decades since any state dissented from the majority view.

The soldiers of the Royal Electric & Mechanical Engineering Corps blasted the extra shots before the azan, and the prayer was done at the outdoor surau, followed by the takbir.

Fireworks were fewer in quantity this year, but pops and whistles echoed across the valley well past midnight, to the consternation of a mother cat and her terrified kittens.

Our taps had run dry earlier in the day — formerly a common occurrence — so everyone was abstemious even though water flowed the next morning.

Phone coverage, however, had collapsed: for competition’s sake, I’ll reveal that Maxis barely survived while Celcom was non-existent.

The khutbah in Masjid Diraja Tuanku Munawir spoke of Aidilfitri as celebrating a day of victory, analogous to but greater than celebrating Merdeka Day, for individual freedom from the devil is superior to a country’s freedom from foreign domination.

Unfortunately many parts of the Muslim world are still suffering from oppression, and we prayed that they will one day see their days of victory.

At the makam, we said our tahlil led by the state mufti, and then we visited individual graves to say prayers, sprinkle flower petals and pour water over them.

This custom has latterly been criticised as un-Islamic even though fatwa have been issued confirming its permissibility.

Such acts are to remember and honour — not worship — those who lived and died before us.

Ever more, the greatest threat to traditional Malay practices comes not from urban liberals, but from puritans who spit on their own heritage.

The former might ignore and forget, but the latter will seek and destroy, the rituals that define our adat.

Though many had cancelled or scaled back their open houses, taking their cue from the federal government, the Istano Terbuko went ahead.

In dark times, opportunities to provide happiness should surely be seized, and 8,449 people came to eat the traditional fare, receive duit rayo and take selfies.

Poignantly, given the content of the morning prayer, amongst the guests were students from Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia — the Tunku Ampuan Besar is its chancellor — who hailed from Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

As we read negative news of their homelands, I hope they write home positively about their festive excursion to Darul Khusus.

Other students were in attendance too: a group I had guest-taught at Sunway University made the journey, as did the kids of the Arioso Sinfonia I had performed with.

As usual, legislators from the opposition benches arrived strategically before the government side.

I told them that it was good that Negeri Sembilan has not been plagued by a disruptive tussle over the position of Menteri Besar.

The last time there was a major episode was in the nineties, and it nearly resulted in Negeri Sembilan having a woman MB: a most exciting story which allegedly has remarkable echoes in the present debacle in Selangor.

However, the majority of people, of all ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, came from towns and cities across the state, stopping to fulfil a glorious Malaysian tradition: to eat, to share goodwill, and to prove to the extremists that victory lies in moderation.

The departure of the final guests only marked the start of the fun with relatives, involving fried chicken, reminiscing and catching up and, most importantly, inducting the next generation to unique family traditions.

As I drove back to Kuala Lumpur the next afternoon, a drizzle attempted to attack the stifling haze, but failed.

It was going to be a miserable trip home, but then my phones beeped and buzzed: somewhere on the Lekas highway, mobile phone signals victoriously penetrated the smog, and they carried only the happiest wishes for Aidilfitri.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published on July 25, 2014, Friday

It was Malam 20 Ramadan, on which by the provisions of an 1898 Agreement, the Yamtuan and the Ruling Chiefs host buka puasa and terawih prayers in their Istana and Balais respectively. The announcer was late in informing guests that a cannon would be fired to mark maghrib: the blast had already caused some guests to jump. In the Balairong Seri, the tazkirah reminded us of the special rewards that God makes available for believers in the holy month, and the melodies of the guest imam from Yemen were particularly soothing.

After the formal end of the evening, some relatives stayed late. Children chased each other around the lobby and adults talked business or raved on about the tempoyak. Suddenly, Yah Rudy looked up from his phone and interjected: “a Malaysia Airlines plane has crashed in Ukraine”.

“What’s your source?”, I immediately asked, thinking it must be a hoax.

Soon, everyone’s phones started buzzing. As with all disasters that have a national or global impact – 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, MH370 – everyone will remember where they were at the time. “Malaysia is a victim of geopolitical turmoil that is happening in that area,” said our Prime Minister some hours later. Obama was already having a go at Putin before this, but even his steely language was to be outdone by the Australians. The Netherlands showed initial restraint but then went on the offensive against Russia, too. British Prime Minister David Cameron also ratcheted up the verbal attack, calling on other European countries to impose greater sanctions on Russia. Malaysia, on the other hand, was resolutely neutral from the beginning: a full independent investigation must be completed before blame is ascribed to anyone.

Rifling through readers’ comments on at least a dozen different websites, it was interesting to see how citizens responded to the stances of their leaders: in the West plenty equated the quick judgement against Russia as proof of a conspiracy, whereas at home some criticised Datuk Seri Najib for failing to join international condemnation of Putin.

As I write this however, our Prime Minister is receiving much praise – including from opposition politicians – for going down the route of quiet diplomacy: the bodies are en route to the grieving families and we obtained the (orange) black boxes, subsequently forwarded to the UK for analysis. The handover ceremony had an air of officialdom about it: the rebels calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic have now received more recognition than the so-called Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant) – but this is surely a small price to pay for the opportunity to provide closure for the victims’ kin.

So far, any shred of evidence has been shrouded by scepticism and doubt: ascertaining anything approximating the truth is impossible in such a politicised environment, as existing biases make people to want to believe a particular set of accusations. For every theory invoking the deleted tweet, the alleged conversation amongst rebels and the photo of the Buk missile system, there are counter-theories – and more. In this age of technological wizardry, credence or doubt are easily fuelled by claiming that data has been manipulated. That is why on-the-ground access by investigators trusted by the international community is vital. Malaysia’s stance sounds logical and reasonable, and the very erudite Russian Ambassador to Malaysia has expressed gratitude for it. Yet, while for us, resolving the specific incident of the plane is the top priority, some of our friends in the West have been waiting for an opportunity to punish Putin for his alleged role in escalating the conflict. (Some months ago I was a guest of the Russian Embassy at a concert to celebrate their Constitution Day: as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was being performed a big portrait of the Russian President appeared in the background, and some ambassadors failed to suppress sniggers.) The context counts. And so the geopolitical fisticuffs will continue and as various investigations claim to reach conclusions, Malaysia may eventually be forced to take sides, too.

It is often said of leaders who struggle at home that an international incident can be a boon: history shows us how wars have been started to divert attention from domestic problems. I’m not suggesting that any leader wanted 298 innocent people to die, but already the various decisions being made by world leaders in the aftermath of our national tragedy are being seen as a turning point for Russia. For Malaysians, however, the tragedy has given us a glimpse into a kind of leadership infrequently seen – purposeful, effective and level-headed in the face of provocation – attributes that old accounts suggest was once the norm. And now that we have seen it, we will yearn for more of it.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on 18th July 2014, Friday.

During sahur last Sunday I turned on the TV to find that the World Cup Final was still 0-0; Mario Gotze scored the all-important goal just as I finished my mango.

After the final whistle, fireworks were audible in Damansara Heights, just as the azan for the subuh prayer began. The crowd in Rio de Janeiro waving yellow-red-black flags while singing their anthem reminded me of Negeri Sembilan’s Malaysia Cup triumph in 2009 after a drought of 61 years, weeks after the Installation of their new Ruler.

The German victory inspired me to listen to Joseph Haydn’s ‘String Quartet in C (Op 76 No 3)’, including variations on the tune he composed in 1797 in honour of Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria. In 1841, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, a German poet with nationalist aspirations – the German Confederation was then a collection of over 30 sovereign monarchies and republics – set new lyrics to the same tune, beginning with ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles’ (Germany, Germany above all).

This was not a yearning for German dominance over others, but an appeal to the rulers of the various sovereign states to place loyalty to a new united nation above independence for their territories – this makes the Malaysian story of federation more similar to the German, rather than the American or Australian, one. The dream of a unified Germany came true in 1871, with Wilhelm I of Prussia proclaimed as Emperor, and the diplomatic genius Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor – but it wasn’t until 1922 that Haydn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s lyrics officially became the German Reich’s national anthem. Ironically, in 1918, the melody was abandoned in its native Austrian Empire (then in union with the Kingdom of Hungary) when its monarchy was abolished in the aftermath of the defeat in World War I.

In better days, the Austro-Hungarian throne’s heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination triggered that war) probably heard his anthem on his visit to Johor in April 1893, alongside the one composed in 1879 for then Maharaja Abu Bakar. The Archduke wrote that at a gala dinner in his honour hosted by the Tunku Mahkota, “a rather good private orchestra of the sultan provided the musical entertainment”. He was then awarded the Darjah Kerabat Johor, an honour later bestowed on the German Kaiser’s brother Prince Henry of Prussia when he visited the sovereign sultanate in 1898.

Haydn’s composition made a comeback in republican Austria in 1929 until the Anschluss with Germany in 1938 – where they were still using the tune alongside the anthem of the Nazi Party. After World War II, West Germany reinstated Hadyn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s third stanza as its national anthem – the first stanza having been banned for its associations with Nazism (despite its pre-Nazi origins). Nonetheless, West German fans sang the first stanza by default when their squad won the World Cup in 1954, causing consternation amongst neighbours.

After the 2014 win, however, only the third stanza was audible, and referring to the anthem as ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles’ today will cause offence. It is unfortunate then, that the only invocation of German history by a Malaysian politician during the World Cup was praise for Hitler, provoking a firm response by the German Ambassador here and embarrassing international headlines.

The furore died down – assisted by another woeful comment from another politician – but not before a number of comments in praise of Hitler emerged, especially in the context of recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. Here, we navigate the dangerous territory of history being cited to justify present day actions, but devoid of a wider context. For example, had Hitler not come to power, European Jews would have more likely stayed in Europe instead of escaping to Palestine and grabbing land from the grandfathers of today’s suffering Palestinians. Remember also that Hitler’s alliance with the Japanese facilitated the death of tens of thousands in Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak.

Also at risk of oversimplification are the calls to boycott certain companies because they purportedly support Zionism. As a student in the UK, I blindly supported such calls, until my Palestinian classmate explained that in some cases, boycotts can end up hurting Palestinians even more because of their position in the supply chain: economic boycotts are only useful, he argued, if they lead to a political solution. A recent target here was McDonald’s, which issued a statement pointing out that their allegedly Jewish CEO had long left the company, and that they employ over 12,000 Malaysians. Who will more likely be negatively impacted by a boycott of GCBs and banana pies?

Sport, music, history and economics: there could hardly be a more exciting sahur.

A soupy insouciance

Posted: July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on the 11th July 2014.

A few days after the Federal Territories Minister issued his ban on soup kitchens within a 2km-radius from Lot 10, I joined the children of Yayasan Chow Kit for buka puasa on my birthday. I have been a trustee since its inception, and was involved while it was still operating as Rumah Nur Salam under the auspices of Yayasan Salam Malaysia. Today YCK operates three centres: Pusat Jagaan Baitu’Amal and Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak (PAKK) for younger children and the KL Krash Pad (KLKP) for teenagers. Over the years, hundreds of kids have regularly used the various services provided by the centres – including shelter, education, counselling and rehabilitation – funded by a combination of government grants and corporate donations.

Many of the children of Yayasan Chow Kit are stateless or refugees, and encounter particular difficulties in accessing services, especially education. We have long argued that it is in everyone’s interests that these children are in school instead of on the streets – where unfortunately they can end up being involved in activities that incur social costs – but the standard response from policymakers is that non-Malaysians should not receive services paid for by Malaysians. “Publicly-funded Malaysian schools are for Malaysian children,” some parents will no doubt insist, “and I don’t want my kids sitting with refugees.”

That is why Ideas, in partnership with the Dutch NGO Young Refugee Cause, is establishing a learning centre, the Ideas Academy (www.ideasacademy.org.my), to cater for needy urban children including the stateless (this is separate from our other educational initiative, the Ideas Autism Centre). It will use the Canadian curriculum bearing in mind that many of the students may ultimately be destined for other countries, and hopefully prove beyond doubt that civil society can work effectively with the private sector to provide educational services to the most disadvantaged in society — a notion that is equally incomprehensible to the authoritarian Right as to the socialist Left, who believe that government must monopolise the education sector to ensure ‘proper values’ or ‘justice for all’ (how’s that working out, eh?).

While there are such initiatives for children, however, there are also thousands of adults who are homeless in Kuala Lumpur. As has already been related in many stories since the debacle started, these encompass a mix of people: from those who have long been living on the streets engaging in petty trade, to those who once had relatively comfortable lives but later encountered personal tragedies, deaths in the family or other misfortunes. It is to these people that soup kitchens have catered.

Soup kitchens are perhaps the ultimate symbol of civic responsibility: their funders and volunteers understand the frailties of urban life and dedicate financial resources as well as time to help those who have been its victims. But there is one aspect which trumps them all: from my observations and interactions with soup kitchen volunteers –whether here, in London or in the most impoverished parts of Detroit which I visited last year – one consistent characteristic is the dignity with which people are treated. Unlike impersonal government welfare programmes designed on the basis of statistics and maps and potential political capital, soup kitchen volunteers interact with individuals face-to-face, immerse themselves in the community and ultimately earn respect, friendship and gratitude.

Perhaps we are all being too harsh on the Federal Territories Minister. Our capital would indeed look smarter if there were no visible signs of poverty. And our tourist spots are indeed blighted by syndicates of beggars, not advertised in the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 brochures. And some of these syndicates are indeed foreign. But the one-handedness with which the new measures were announced points to a breathtaking ignorance on the part of the authorities by putting everyone in the same boat. As we have seen all too often in pronouncements of government policy, there was little prior consultation with those who are most well-versed in the topic.

I would reiterate another point about governance: it is high time that our cities are governed not by appointees of Putrajaya or state governments, but instead be given the right to directly elect executive mayors with significant responsibilities. This would create much greater local accountability on all issues directly affecting the cities. Some politicians would find such a development intolerable to their career prospects: to them I say emulate Joko Widodo, who proved himself as Mayor of Surakarta before running as Governor of Jakarta, and now he is a presidential candidate.

After the Federal Territories Minister made his announcement, one soup kitchen which operates within the banned zone approached YCK to see if we could host them. Our centres are just outside the zone, so if we can, we will!